Zorn Gives Redskins a Much Different Leader

By Les Carpenter
Monday, May 5, 2008

The crowd of Washington Redskins players gathered on the hillside Sunday morning said everything one needed to know about how things are going to be different around here. On a field below, Clinton Portis and LaRon Landry -- the team's two best young players -- lined up for a 40-yard sprint that would settle some trite locker room dispute for the vanity of determining which man is faster.

After they thundered across the grass in the kind of potential hamstring-snapping duel that never would have happened in the years of Joe Gibbs and would likely have sent the current Redskins coach's mentor, Mike Holmgren, into a sputtering rage, the current coach had only one question.

"Who won?" Jim Zorn asked.

He will not be cut from the cast iron mold of an old-fashioned coach. By the end of his first minicamp, that much should be clear. The football men who rarely deviate from proven formulas would never have their players roll giant exercise balls at quarterbacks the way Zorn has done for years in Seattle and did as well this weekend. Nor would they paint multicolored lines on the edge of the field to let receivers know where they should be on their routes. Likewise they don't invite big league first basemen to teach their quarterbacks to sprawl across a Slip 'n Slide so those passers will know the proper technique for evading an on-rushing tackler.

He is his own man in a league that pays big rewards for mimicry. Which, of course, can be dangerous because those who go out on their own often leave themselves most open for criticism.

A few weeks ago, Holmgren sat in his office at the Seahawks' headquarters in Kirkland, Wash., and pointed to a beloved copy of a coaching primer written by his mentor, former 49ers coach Bill Walsh. The book, "Finding The Winning Edge," is about as stimulating as an introduction to quantum physics, but to the men who have bought into Walsh's practices -- and there are many of them -- it is an essential part of their lives, the very text by which they live.

"It's like Dr. Spock," Holmgren laughed, referring to the indispensable baby guide of generations past. "Every time when the kids were little you opened it up to page whatever.

"It's a pretty good guide for any coach, I think."

Every coach raised in the Walsh system keeps the book in his office. For instance, Holmgren is sure that Andy Reid, the last assistant he had who did what Zorn is doing -- going from quarterbacks coach to head coach -- never has the book far from his desk in Philadelphia. But Reid and Zorn are not that much alike. When Reid coached quarterbacks for Holmgren in Green Bay, he furiously took notes, absorbing everything, taking all of Holmgren's philosophies and loading them into a pile of notepads.

Zorn was never like that, he said. Zorn did a wonderful job of developing Matt Hasselbeck into a star quarterback and revived Trent Dilfer's career when nobody else seemed to want Dilfer. He is a fantastic teacher and Holmgren loved him, hoping to find a way to get the Seahawks' next head coach, Jim Mora, to promise Zorn the offensive coordinator's job in 2009 so Zorn would stay. But Zorn was not taking notes on everything Holmgren was saying. The new Redskins coach will not be the carbon copy of Holmgren that many of Holmgren's assistants have been.

Asked if he thought Zorn kept Walsh's book on his office shelf, Holmgren chuckled.

"I don't know if it will be on Jim's booklist," he said.

It isn't. But Zorn admits to having read parts of it, less for the book's how-to elements than for the nuggets of wisdom Walsh spread in boxes on every few pages.

"I have to be myself and [Holmgren] has to be himself," Zorn said yesterday as he walked back into the Redskins' facility. "But there are a lot of times when I've been thinking, 'How did we do it in Seattle?' Which is really saying, 'What did Mike do in this situation?' He's a tremendous football coach. He really is. It's amazing. We really see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. I really believe in how he prepares a football team to play."

Zorn will create his own identity. He has made that clear from the moment he was named head coach. He says he's had mentors other than just Holmgren. They include Chuck Knox and Bobby Ross. The Holmgren-Walsh way is but one of his influences. He will take pieces of all of them and put them into his own style.

And so on Sunday came the first real test of his Redskins time. Fred Davis, the tight end the team drafted in the second round, missed the last day of minicamp, apparently after oversleeping. It was the kind of unthinkable infraction that would make most coaches so furious they might not be able to speak. Zorn, however, did not look furious. He said he wanted to talk to Davis to find out what happened.

"This'll be the first time I get to deal with this situation, too," he said. "It's going to come at some point one of these days in my life, it might as well come now."

He almost sounded bemused, as if he were curious how he will deal with Davis. But whatever the punishment, it is clear the verdict won't come from a book or another coach's lecture. The man still defining himself as a head coach is not likely to base his decision on somebody else's precedent. And chances are it is going to surprise because it will deviate from all accepted norms.

Then again, this is Jim Zorn.

He won't be cut from someone else's cloth.

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